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It is the OfS categories, not institutions, that ‘require improvement’

  • 7 November 2023
  • By James Tooley
  • This post was kindly authored for HEPI by Professor James Tooley, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Buckingham.

There are currently 53 institutions of higher education whose TEF results are marked as “pending” on the official OfS website. These cater for over 420,000 students, or 15% of the total UK student population.

It’s a reasonable assumption that many of these have been (provisionally) given “Requires Improvement” status. This rating is likely to be the death-knell for any higher education institution, which is why they will be right to contest it with all their might: The OfS encourages students to use TEF ratings “which provide a clear signal of a provider’s excellence”, and has suggested that UCAS will publish the ratings alongside, for instance, course availability. Students will surely shun offerings which the official regulator has branded “Requires Improvement”.

Meanwhile, while these appeals are heard, there’s an awful lot of students who are left in a position of some uncertainty regarding the quality of their provider.

Except they shouldn’t be. It’s the category itself that needs renewed and continued challenging. “Requires Improvement” makes no sense at all, even in the OfS’s own terms. “Requires Improvement” in fact means that the institution has reached a uniformly “High Quality”, that it has met all the regulatory requirements for high quality.

How did we get to this bizarre situation where “Meets Requirements/Uniformly High Quality” becomes “Requires Improvement”?

The TEF guidelines are very clear. Gold means that student experience and outcomes are typically “outstanding”. Silver means typically “very high quality”, with maybe some outstanding features. Bronze means typically “high quality”, with (definitely) some “very high quality” features.  

And then there’s Requires improvement. The OfS spells it out (Regulatory Advice 22, para. 41): “the TEF panel have the option to not award a rating where there is an absence of excellence above our high quality minimum requirements.”

So, the meaning of “Requires Improvement” is that an institution of higher education which has satisfied all the regulatory B conditions, has been deemed by the regulator to offer teaching experience and outcomes of a consistently “High Quality”. How did that get rendered into “Requires Improvement”? On what planet, in what universe, is that a reasonable translation?

(The only exception is if the OfS decides that there has been “a breach of one or more of the B conditions” (para. 60a) in which case the OfS “may decide that a provider is ineligible” for the TEF, and hence not be given the “Requires Improvement” label, even though in this case it could be argued that it does require improvement. This is all moot in any case because if the OfS rules that the B conditions have not been met, then the provider will be deregistered (para. 60b)).

Imagine being awarded a second-class honours degree at university and having it labelled not as a 2:1 or a 2:2 but as “Requires Improvement”, and only having that label to show one’s parents and potential employers. How could that ever be considered sensible?

It’s no fault of Dame Shirley Pearce’s independent review of the TEF which as far back as 2019 first suggested that a “Meets UK Quality Requirements” could be a useful category. She was ignored.

It’s also not fair to blame the erstwhile Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi, who wrote, in his Guidance Letter to the OfS of 31st March 2022, that “a provider ineligible to take part in the TEF for reasons of quality should not appear better than a participating one that is categorised as Requires Improvement”.

He was ignored too.

Indeed, it’s even worse than I’ve outlined already. The OfS says that it “has adopted the TEF as a sector level intervention to promote excellence in teaching, learning and student outcomes beyond the minimum baseline.” (Regulatory Advice, para. 43). The minimum baseline, that is, that shows everything of a uniformly High Quality. They continue: “Beyond this minimum we encourage choice for students and innovation by autonomous higher education providers free to pursue excellence as they see fit.” (Regulatory Advice, para. 22).

This is dangerously disingenuous. It is the only place that institutional autonomy – which is highlighted as of critical importance in the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017 itself – is alluded to in the whole TEF guidance.

But how is it possible to think of institutions as being in any way autonomous when faced with the TEF? It is mandatory to enter (assuming they are of a certain size). And the Gold, Silver, and Bronze categories use criteria determined by the OfS. So what are “autonomous” universities supposed to do? How can they pursue “excellence as they see fit” knowing that this could lead to the label “Requires Improvement” and the existential threat that will bring?

Of course even if a university does try to follow what they think is required by the OfS, it has to make its case through its 25-page Provider submission – what if they don’t know how to make the case in the right, acceptable way? It is marked and graded by a panel using highly subjective criteria and requiring complex statistical interpretation. The threat of this “Requires Improvement” hangs over everyone.

The House of Lords report on the OfS was entitled “Must do Better”. It’s tempting to quip that the OfS itself been given a “Requires Improvement” rating. Whether or not that title was deserved is not for me to pass judgement on here. But, as it is currently defined, the parallel “Requires Improvement” is in general most definitely not deserved by any institution of higher education.

We can all do better, of course, but let’s have a label that’s fit for purpose to encourage us on our way, rather than one which will signal the end for any provider thus branded.

Postscript: This is not sour grapes. My university has Silver (2023) and Gold (2017) TEF awards.

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  1. Andy Long says:

    Just to note some of those listed as “pending” may be appealing for a very good outcome to be replaced by an excellent one!

  2. James Fuller says:

    Having spent c25 years in state school education this approach from OfS doesn’t surprise me at all. OfS has been increasingly looking like OfS(ted).

  3. Albert Wright says:

    This article has convinced me and probably the majority of students and academics, that the age of “Requires Improvement” in the context of TEF and Universities should be ended as soon as possible.

    It is no longer helpful (if it ever was), it is contradictory in common English to what it seeks to convey, it is misleading and inappropriate.

    The only context in which it makes any sense would be something like “If this University wants to be awarded a Gold, Silver or Bronze award in place of {Requires Improvement}, it must meet the required criteria, however it still “Meets UK Quality Requirements” as they are.

    It is unfortunate that the term “requires Improvement” mirrors the words used by Ofsted in its reports on HE colleges and other providers but at least Ofsted indicates the respects in which the institution has failed to reach required standards.

    As the number of Universities deliverying Apprenticeships grows, it would be a double whammy to get a “Requires Improvement” from both TEF and Ofsted and to find that they mean different things.

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